What is this strange, moving, fascinating poem about? It’s about an ongoing fight to the death between very different creatures. It seems to be a decidedly “unequal battle”. One of the combatants looks like a ‘no-hoper’.
There is a “crested animal” resembling the mythical griffin, with “eagle’s head” and “whetted beak”; “body of leopard” and “lion’s mane”. Outwardly, it’s visually impressive but, hidden under its “royal hues” are “claws .. to tear the heart out of the side”. Inwardly, there’s “no place or time for chivalry or for grace”.
The other animal is visually unimpressive. It’s “soft”, “round” and “brown as clay”. Its “wretched skin” resembles “a battered bag”, fit only “to throw away”, and yet “I never saw a beast so helpless and so brave”. Within this unprepossessing animal, is courage, fortitude, perseverance and resolve.
This “combat” is strange. Who’d expect to find such a “crested animal” on a “shabby patch of clods and trampled turf”. That’s surely not its favoured territory. Why does it feel so threatened by the “soft round beast”? This must also, surely, be a brief, decisive combat. The crested beast is “furious”, with a “swift attack”. With its enemy “on his back”, its “paw slashed out and in”.
By some means, the soft round beast regains its den, “safe somehow there”. The respite, however, is temporary. The crested animal is determined to kill and so, inescapably, “the champions took their posts again”. But there is no end to this combat. The long-lived “trees stood by”, and “stand watching still”, and “the killing beast that cannot kill, swells and swells in his fury, till you’d almost think it was despair”.
What’s the meaning of all this? In 1939, Edwin Muir embraced the Christian faith. This poem dates from 1948 and may, in part, be a response to the WWII “combat” between liberal democracy and fascist totalitarianism, which left behind it the “trampled turf” of Europe – a “combat” which will never finally be over. We today may think about ‘mighty’ Russia and brave Ukraine.
Also in the background is surely the poet’s Christian faith. The “soft round beast, as brown as clay, all rent and patched” recalls Isaiah 53:2, taken by Christians to prefigure Jesus as God’s ‘suffering servant’ – “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him”. And when the soft round beast’s “two small paws like hands flew out to right and left, as the trees stood by”, the crucifixion of Jesus on the hill of Golgotha surely comes to mind.
For Christians, Jesus is the one “who would not die”. To some, in his crucifixion he battled Satan, who “lost, who had all but won”. And one of Jesus’ beatitudes also comes to mind – “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”. The poem suggests that what’s indomitably best about human nature, despite setbacks, will never be defeated by what’s worst.